The patron saint’s day was being celebrated with great exuberance in the city centre last night. Despite the winter temperatures, there were women out in dresses appropriate to Mediterranean climes; their male companions were in boisterous form.
Until recent years, there would have been ritual clerical condemnation of the excesses, in some quarters there would have been harsh words about such celebration taking place at all. Times being what they are, young people taking too much to drink is a minor misdemeanour when compared with the institutional crimes of the church.
There has been a lack of an independent critique of Irish society; it is not that the voices have not been there, they have, but in a clerically controlled society, those whose views did not accord with church teaching were accorded no more respect than last night’s celebrants would have been.
New voices are needed; the church needs to be pushed out to the margins, where members belong because of faith and commitment, and not because of the power and influence exercised by the church. So far, much of the critique of Irish religion has had no more substance than Chaim, the character in the Jewish story of Moishe the Atheist:
“In the little Eastern European village of Chelm lived a young man, who considered himself an atheist. Chaim, the Chelmite had heard that the very famous “Moishe the Atheist” lived in the neighbouring village. Eager to find a like-minded soul to learn from, Chaim packed a bit of food in his kerchief, hung it on a stick, and made his way through the woods to find Moishe the Atheist and to study with him.
After a few days journey, and directions from a few helpful strangers, the young man found Moishe’s little cottage. He knocked on the door and received permission to enter. There was an old, bespectacled man hunched over the table, half-hidden behind a pile of books.
“Yes,” said the older man.
“I am looking for Moishe the Atheist,” said Chaim.
“I am Moishe,” said Moishe.
“Sir, I am an atheist too, and I would like to be your apprentice,” said the younger man.
Moishe slowly removed his glasses and peered at the stranger. “You are an atheist?” he asked.
“Yes, sir,” replied Chaim.
“Have you read the Torah?” Moishe asked.
“No, sir,” said Chaim.
“Have you studied the Talmud?”
“No, sir,” said Chaim.
“Are you familiar with all our prayers and philosophies?” asked Moishe.
“No, sir!” said Chaim adamantly. “I am an atheist.”
“Ach,” said Moishe, waving the young man away dismissively. “You are not an atheist. You are only an ignoramus”
Moishes are needed in public positions and in high office in Ireland; people who understand how we came to be where we are; and people who understand the church, its teaching, and the process by which it took over Irish society.
The church will resist fiercely because it is fond of its power and prestige. But people interested in following Jesus of Nazareth should not fear, less religion in the state, which leads only to nominal half-hearted observance, will lead to more Christianity in the church, as faith becomes a matter of personal choice and commitment.